Sphinx Virtuosi with Catalyst Quartet Program Notes
A note from Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, Executive and Artistic Director: This year’s theme represents a figurative dialogue, showcasing a selection of great gems from two eras (baroque and contemporary), while accenting the program with works by composers of color. The architecture of the program pays homage to great 20th century composers who were either deeply interested in baroque or had a tangible connection to it. We invite you to experience Perkinson’s ingenious use of baroque elements and consider Piazzolla’s early devotion to Bach, topped off by Britten’s Simple Symphony, Opus 4, a suite of dances common to the baroque era in their form.
Montgomery, Strum (Sphinx Virtuosi Composer-in-Residence)
Strum is the culminating result of several versions of a string quintet I wrote in 2006. It was originally written for the Providence String Quartet and guests of Community MusicWorks Players, and then arranged for string quartet in 2008 with several small revisions. In 2012 the piece underwent its final revisions with a rewrite of both the introduction and the ending for the Catalyst Quartet in a performance celebrating the 15th annual Sphinx Competition. Originally conceived for the formation of a cello quintet, the voicing is often spread wide over the ensemble, giving the music an expansive quality of sound. Within Strum I utilized texture motives, layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinati that string together to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out. The strumming pizzicato serves as a texture motive and the primary driving rhythmic underpinning of the piece. Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.
Piazzolla, Tango No. 1 “Coral”
Piazzolla, Tango No. 2 “Cantengue”
Astor Piazzolla was an Argentinean composer and a virtuoso bandoneon player, who revolutionized and reinvented the tango, making it ever appealing, relevant and popular among the classical, world, jazz and other genres. In 1954 he traveled to Paris to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, who, after hearing him play his compositions on the bandoneón, urged him to pursue his own voice through that foundation rather than attempting to imitate other great composers. Piazzolla’s nuevo tango ultimately became a genre of its own embracing the elements of jazz and classical music and creating, as a result, deeply complex, innovative content that met with great popularity. With these 2 transcriptions for string orchestra, the tango takes on a multitude of lives: full of color, sonority, but also sensuality and virtuosity. Their place in today’s program pays poignant tribute to Piazzolla’s own training and fascination with Bach, which without a doubt made an imprint on his development as a composer.
Bach, Selections from the Goldberg Variations
Collectively inspired by Bach’s genius and the groundbreaking 1955 recording of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, the Catalyst Quartet decided to explore and highlight this relationship through our own arrangement of the Goldberg Variations. Originally written for harps
ichord and consisting of an aria and 30 variations, this work is considered to be one of the most important examples of variation form. First published in 1741, the variations are named after harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, most likely the work’s first performer.
Grammy Award winner Paquito D’Rivera was born in Havana, Cuba. Considered a child prodigy, he began his career playing both clarinet and saxophone with the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra. By 1988, D’Rivera had become a founding member and soloist with Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra, an ensemble that showcased the fusion of Latin and Caribbean influences with American jazz. Since leaving Cuba, D’Rivera has taken command of his role as a cross-cultural ambassador, creating and promoting a multicultural style. Written in 1975, Wapango is one of Rivera’s most recognizable works for small ensemble. Based on a popular Mexican dance, the Huapango, D’Rivera flexes his virtuosic ability to bridge relationships between traditional and contemporary forms.
Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No 6 in B Flat Major, BWV 1051
Johann Sebastian Bach remains the quintessential baroque giant, unmatched by any, to this day. The Brandenburg Concerti series are some of his most buoyant, vibrant and celebrated works, loved and performed by artists of yesterday and today. Concerto No. 6 is scored for strings, as is No. 3. However this concerto, unlike any other, truly illuminates the sonoric, melodic and harmonic capacity of the lower strings, enveloping the listener in a sense of beauty, balance and an elegant continuum. Violins are absent from the score completely: in the contemporary readings, the violas lead the melody with their luscious tone. The first movement employs a jovial canon, which develops a playful character in this register. As one listens for violas and cellos to converse, the ear becomes accustomed to the unusual overtones of that register, appreciating their warmth. The middle movement has an even thinner and more exclusive orchestration, emerging with a beautiful, well-known melody. The rondo finale of the last movement is a clever combination of select excerpts which contrast with one another, assembled as only Bach could: even the repetition and the mirror effect are elegant and subtle, leading the piece to an energetic and thrilling conclusion.
Perkinson, Louisiana Blues Strut: A Cakewalk
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson was one of the most remarkable and versatile American composers of our time. His innovative approach made an imprint not only in the classical realm, but also, with jazz, blues, film and popular genres. The first of today’s gems is Louisiana Blues Strut, a solo violin composition. Although it was put to paper three decades later, this work was initially conceived of as another movement to his great Blues Form/s (a separate virtuosic work for solo violin). In addition to paying homage to the blues as a genre, “A Cakewalk” connects us to the slave era and the musical traditions of that time. Its cyclical content is also reminiscent of the dances from the Baroque era. In enjoying the lulling, teasing, humming moments of this treat, one might also consider that it is a work that is beautifully suited for this particular instrument.
Vivaldi, Concerto for 2 Cellos and String Orchestra in G Minor, RV 531
Antonio Vivaldi, the master of the baroque era, has remained a favorite among audiences and performers over time. His Concerto in G minor (RV 531) for two celli is often neglected and not given as much exposure as is merited. The two solo instruments dominate the composition from the opening measures in a way that is compelling and demanding of a listener’s attention. The first movement is energetic, dynamic and a fully developed arena for establishing the solo voices and their interaction with the tutti. In the second movement, Largo, the violins and violas rest, which allows for the lower voices to absorb all of the attention with their deep sonority and power. The closing movement is typical of Vivaldi’s other fast concerto movements, however, with the two cellos as solo voices. The intense feeling of vivacious energy is further augmented, making this work that much more interesting.
Britten, Simple Symphony for String Orchestra No. 4
Benjamin Britten was a gifted composer from an incredibly young age. His gifts may be considered prodigious, as composed his first piece at age five and was a student at the Royal College of Music at sixteen. His professional tenure as a composer launched at age 18. Simple Symphony is brilliant in that is borrows material from Britten’s childhood compositions, doing so in a matter that is most mature and sophisticated, while remaining delightfully accessible. One of the ways in which it so fittingly graces today’s program and its theme is that in its form, it pays some tribute to the baroque era, embracing dance forms like Sarabande and Bouree. Part of Britten’s genius is his alliterative titling with each movement, further suggesting simplicity, while in content, conveying depth and beauty.
Perkinson, Sinfonietta No. 1, Rondo: Allegro Furioso
Born in New York City, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson is one of the nation’s foremost composers, able to transcend many of the conventional barriers of genre, race, musical medium, culture and time. A consummate musician, he was a composer, conductor, educator, mentor, role model and a pioneer. Perkinson held many positions throughout his career, including co-founder of the Symphony of the New World and coordinator of performance activities for Center for Black Music Research. To capture some of the timeless jewels of his writing, the Sinfonietta was recorded on the disc ‘A Celebration’ by the Chicago Sinfonietta and Paul Freeman after the composer’s passing. Written in 1952 when he was 22 years old, it was not premiered until 1966. In its style and form, this excellent work exhibits the influences of composers ranging from Bach to Copland and Barber. The Sinfonietta also offers a range of characters and qualities, from lyrical and sonorous in the slow movement to exuberant and defiant in the Finale, the movement performed today. Perkinson not only masterfully combined the influences of other great masters, but also decidedly presents his own style and language, including intricate meter variation, harmonic definition and distinctive lyricism.
Program notes by Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, Executive and Artistic Director of the Sphinx Organization and Catalyst Quartet, a Sphinx Ensemble.